JANUARY is not a popular time for weddings — not in Northern Europe. But it looks as if we are not, in any case, in the world of “ordinary time”.
Counting up the references to days, in these verses of John, as if they marked a strict chronology, just befuddles us. If we start with John 1.28-29, when the Baptist is in Bethany and calls Jesus “Lamb of God”, then Cana is the fifth day. At 1.35, “the next day after”, he again calls Jesus “Lamb of God”. At 1.43, Jesus talks with Philip and Nathanael. It can be the third day only if we start counting at 1.35. There’s God’s time, and there’s government time, as a character in a novel once remarked.
The readings in the lectionary are often chosen because they speak to one another in some way, but, on this occasion, the tie-up is particularly close. Be it January or June, the focus is firmly on weddings — which are a sensitive subject in church at present. Among other challenges, there is the pressure of a built-up blockage of marriages in the sacramental pipeline, caused by Covid. Those who have a “high” doctrine of marriage as a sacrament will not like the image of sewers and drainage as a way of expressing the current matrimonial logjam; but these readings preserve the sublimity, by pointing to a far higher understanding of what marriage can and should mean than any human could otherwise imagine.
In today’s psalm is one of the loveliest family prayers in the Bible. The psalm is a celebration of the blessings of family life. It ends with a prayer that I use at every wedding I take — a prayer that touches me personally, and likewise touches many of those present at those weddings, for whom the beginning of one “new life together in the community” is an opportunity to look back on choices and commitments made, for better or for worse, decades earlier.
“May you live to see your children’s children,” I pray for the couple, “and [glossing here for the sake of a non-churchy congregation] peace upon God’s people.” This, like last week’s readings, reminds me once more of the Jewish tradition of saying Kaddish, a mourner’s prayer that marks how the (now dead) parent has brought up their child in the faith and fear of God. It joins the inward joy of family life to the outward joy of life in fellowship with others. One blood family, and one spirit family: in both cases, to live to see your children’s children is to be richly blessed.
Weddings are not the only sacramental prefiguring in the readings. The Genesis reading, though short, focuses our attention on the theme of kingly priesthood in association with (as Christians immediately identify it) the eucharistic offering of bread and wine. Since Salem is traditionally identified with Jerusalem, one commentator observes that, in this short section, we find both the racial and the geographical identity of the people of God brought together for the first time.
What Abram is doing, recognising the status of a foreign king and receiving his blessing, is harder to understand. But the acknowledgement of the Hebrews’ God by the rulers of foreign nations is a key theme in other scriptural texts, especially Daniel, which forms the daily preparation for Christmas, as this set of readings guides us in its wake.
The weaving together of the themes of marriage and eucharist continues in Revelation. A bishop once remarked to me how disappointing he found the liturgical version of Revelation 19.9: “blessed are those who are called to his supper”. He had a point. The “marriage supper of the Lamb” sounds far more exotic.
When it comes to actual weddings, the theme of the Lamb and his Bride is rather too rich theological fare. Instead, plain bread-and-butter truths are required, delivered in such a way as to convey the power and meaning without introducing too many alien ideas at once. Churchspeak about “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church” does not say anything useful to people who attend church only for “hatch, match, and dispatch” moments. Where “the marriage supper of the Lamb” can inspire those who are already Christian, a prayer that we may live to see our children’s children (whether blood family or spiritual family) will surely touch the hearts of all. After all, everybody is somebody’s child.